July 11, 2023
By Xari Jalil
The date was April 10, 2021; the time, 3 am. Saeeda Hameed’s life changed that night and it has never gone back to normal again.
A contingent of seven to eight armed men, all in plain clothes barged into their rented home in Karachi’s Gulistan-e-Jauhar apartment, and whisked her father away. Now Abdul Hameed Zehri has become just another name in the long and growing list of missing persons – forgotten except for their loved ones.
But after a recent online campaign by Saeeda, the case has come back into the spotlight after human rights watchdog Amnesty International has demanded action from Pakistani authorities. In a Twitter statement, the organization expressed solidarity with Zehri’s family and called on authorities to immediately disclose his whereabouts.
“We call on Pakistani authorities to disclose the whereabouts of Abdul Hameed Zehri and if in their custody, immediately release him or promptly bring him before a civilian court to rule on the legality of his detention,”
the statement reads.
The statement adds that if Zehri remains in detention, he must be charged with an internationally recognized offense. The organization insisted on a fair trial in a civilian court, emphasizing that due process should be upheld and that the use of the death penalty should be avoided.
NIGHT OF HORROR
17-year-old Saeeda had no clue how everything around her would crumble overnight. But since her father has been taken away, she and her siblings have been endlessly suffering.
“One of them had a copy of my father’s CNIC in their cell phone and they showed it to us. ‘Are you Abdul Hameed Zehri?’ they asked, and my father said, ‘Yes’. So they started pulling him outside the house. My mother was distraught and she started shouting, but they said they were just ‘checking something and would bring my father back in five minutes.”
Saeeda says that her two younger brothers and baby sister were sleeping at that time. As her father began protesting, the man leading the raid pointed his gun at one of their heads and said, if you do not come with us, we will shoot your children. Defeated and silenced, Abdul Hameed Zehri followed immediately.
“My father instantly went with them. But at that time, the entire family, including him knew who these people were – these were the same people involved in enforced disappearances of so many others,” she says.
The family claims that not only the intelligence agencies but the Sindh government were also behind this.
“That night, we could see police vehicles from PS Shahrah-e-Faisal. After they dragged my father out and down the stairs, my mother followed them. By the time she reached downstairs though, they had gone. Only a police mobile could be seen. My mother pleaded and demanded them to tell her, but it was clear he was not in the mobile, and had been taken away in some other vehicle. The police told her to leave or they would have to be rough with us,” says Saeeda. “They cleaned up the whole situation by even taking the CCTV footage from the apartment guard. They wanted to show my father disappeared into thin air.”
Abdul Hameed Zehri had brought his family 12 years ago from Balochistan to Karachi. “We came for our education. We belong to Khuzdar and my father was a small-time businessman. He was not associated with any religious group or political party. He just had a small water filter shop and sometimes dabbled in real estate dealing in small-scale plots. Nothing too big.”
He also never used social media, but ironically it is social media that Saeeda must use in order to bring attention to this case. Saeeda launched a Twitter campaign on Sunday to attract people, especially from Baloch political organizations, and social media activists to use the hashtag #ReleaseAbdulHameedZehri which did happen to become one of the top trends on Twitter in Pakistan.
Yet in the past, even trying to shine a light on the subject has not been easy for her.
Once when they organized a protest, the police dragged them away even before it began.
“My mother, my younger brothers, and my 3-year-old sister were all dragged by the police roughed up, and taken to the station where they threatened, and humiliated us making us sit there without our phones till the time of the protest was over,” says Saeeda. “Afterwards they let us go ‘advising’ us not to waste our time on such things. So, we can’t even talk about our problems?”
After Zehri was taken away the next morning a lawyer and family friend advised them to file an application with the police.
“We were so simple in this regard. We had no idea what to do. And yet when we went to file an initial application the police dissuaded us until late in the evening. Still, they would not file an FIR.”
The application was filed on April 10, 2021, but the FIR was not filed until eight months later – against ‘unknown persons’. That too when Saeeda and her family would not budge from the station till it was filed.
They could not manage to pay the lawyer’s fees so they had to hire one from the human rights commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
“We have not been happy with the development of the case. In short, there have been around 10 calls but our father has not been brought to court (Sindh High Court),” she says. “We held a camp outside the Karachi Press Club for 25 days and the Sindh CM sent his message through the office of Shabbir Bijrani Sindh Minister of Mines and Minerals, that they would try and find my father but nothing has been done for it.”
In a 50-day camp outside the Quetta Press Club, Saeeda traveled alone there to participate in it. Whether it was the blazing sun or the bitter cold Saeeda sat there holding a picture of her father, hoping someone would hear her cries.
A team of government delegates did visit the camp which included Rana Sanaullah the minister for Interior and Azam Nazeer Tarar then Law minister. They promised they would help with the whereabouts of the missing persons. “But instead soon after their visit to our camp, encounters started where they killed one or two youths whose names were in the missing persons list.”
Meanwhile, Saeeda says it was ‘ridiculous’ what the attitude has been towards them in the Commission for the Inquiry of Enforced Disappearances, (COIED).
“When I go there for a hearing, I am asked if I have any information about my father. It should be the other way round! They said to us, your father must have been kidnapped by some robbers and you are blaming the intelligence agencies in return. This is their attitude.”
While this has been happening in courts, the family has faced threatening calls from hidden numbers, suspicious men turning up at their doorstep saying they were from human rights groups, and others who have been asking around the neighbours about where they live.
“The day my case really got highlighted was when I attended Manzoor Pashteen’s rally in Karachi and I went to the stage to speak. This man came to our house and asked us, who invited you to Pashteen’s stage – then eventually left saying that going to protests was a waste of time. I told him, until my father is back, I cannot imagine not protesting. The day he returns I will never step out again, but I want him back.”
The case was also raised in the Senate twice by Senator Mushtaq of JI, says Saeeda but is at a standstill there too.
Traumatized by the absence of his father, 11-year-old Hammal, Saeeda’s younger brother has become a shell of a person, she says. “He was the boy who came top of the class, he was full of life, his eyes shone. Today he has lost weight, he has become quiet and he cries for his father,” she says. “It’s his crying that I cannot bear – its unbearable to think my siblings will grow up without the shadow of my father.”
She says her father was such a well-respected and humble man that everyone is still perplexed as to why he was picked up like that.
“There is still nothing they can pin on my father. And yet in my desperation, I don’t even care about what they pin on him – but at least they should bring him out in front of us and hold a free and fair trial. I am desperate to see him. He was a diabetic patient – I don’t even know how he is faring health-wise. I myself have fallen sick in wondering about him. I have begun to forget things.”
And yet Saeeda must carry on with the case. Every day she sees around her other young people who are going about their business happily – they have friends, they have studies to worry over. Saeeda though must take trips to the court and spend her days fighting with the world that has taken her father away from her.